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In Tunisia, the project for the translation of French books into Arabic


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“A fierce freedom”, by Annick Cojean (Arabic edition).

Between the four walls of the feminist association Aswat Nissain November 2021, a group of young readers discuss the book by Annick Cojean (journalist at World), A fierce freedom (ed. Grasset, 2020), collection of interviews with lawyer and activist Gisèle Halimi.

During the debate, several admirers of this feminist figure deplore the fact that few Tunisians know her “and especially that there is no Arabic translation of her books when she was born and raised in Tunisia”, underlines Othello the reader, a 23-year-old Tunisian “booktubeur”, one of those Internet users who share video chronicles on literature.

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Happy coincidence, six months after this discreet discussion, the Arabic version ofA fierce freedom sits on the shelves of the bookstore and publishing house La Maison du livre in Tunis, “recognition for this monument of Tunisian heritage”, explains the publisher Habib Zoghbi who, in the process, also translated and published the autobiographical story of Gisèle Halimi, disrespectful lawyer (ed. Plon, 2002).

“Even Tunisian lawyers are unfamiliar with the work of Gisèle Halimi, while her cause and her many emblematic trials have marked French pleadings”, explains the editor. Both translations are now also exhibited and sold at the Court of First Instance in Tunis.

“An expensive job”

The translation of these works into Arabic is a first in Tunisia, where this kind of initiative is very little encouraged. It was made with the support of the French Institute of Tunisia (IFT) and a fund from the Livre des deux rives program, with a budget of one million euros for a pilot aid project to translation between the Maghreb and France. Set up during the pandemic, this fund aims to support the publishing and translation sectors, help their professionalization, but also promote writers from both shores of the Mediterranean.

“The Tunisian case is interesting, underlines Sarra Ghorbal, attaché for the book and the media libraries at the IFT, because the chain of the book is still lacking there and neither the authors nor the translators really live from their work”. The mix of genres between writing, translation, editing, printing and publishing in certain structures makes it difficult to set up a fluid and coherent ecosystem. There is indeed a National Institute of Translation, but it translates and publishes the works it produces, without offering direct aid to independent publishers, who themselves operate in a restricted market.

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“Translation is an expensive item in the production of a book, we need real support to commit ourselves more to this type of project, explains Elisabeth Daldoul, director of the Elyzad publishing house. Unfortunately, there is not in Tunisia the equivalent of the CNL [Centre national du livre] French, an establishment that would support our activity. Added to this, a book sector for which we have the feeling that it has not been given enough consideration by the public authorities over the past decade. »

Mme Daldoul adds that with the devaluation of the dinar, the transfer of the rights of a French work into Arabic becomes very expensive. Hence the importance of a partnership like that of the Livre des deux rives.

“Improve exchanges between the two shores”

She herself initiated the translation from Arabic into French of the Tunisian writer Hassouna Mosbahi, 72, author of No mourning for my mother, a social novel inspired by a news item that occurred in the 1970s in a popular district of Tunis. A way to show a “another Tunisia, that of the countryside and myths”, explains Mr. Mosbahi, part of whose work has already been translated into English and German.

“We must improve exchanges between the two shores, give writers, even from the young generation, a chance to be better known by a French readership”pleads this enthusiast of the French language. He himself translated into Arabic the work of the poets Francis Ponge and René Char, but also Diary pages by André Gide“an invaluable document for knowing the history of Tunisia during the two world wars and the period of the German occupation”, details the writer.

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“The younger generation is more turned towards English and the use of French is dwindling, he adds. Translating French writers therefore makes it possible to safeguard a heritage in a different way. » “La francophonie is not only about reading, writing or speaking in French, it is also about discovering plural French-speaking cultures in other languages”, adds Sarra Ghorbal.

The attaché for the IFT book also insists on the need to make French readers better acquainted with classics of Arabic literature such as historical fiction Barg-Ellil written by the Tunisian novelist Béchir Khraïef. The book tells the story of a black slave in the 16thand century that gains its freedom and leaves to discover the world.

A new dynamic

The Livre entre deux rives partnership has also paved the way for the translation of more contemporary works such as comics The legend of Chbayah, a Tunisian revolt. Written by Tunisian illustrator Seifeddine Nechi and screenwriter Aymen Mbarek, the comic was published by the publishing house Alifbata, created in 2015 and which aims to make Arab comics better known through its translation. The book has been distributed in France since January 2022 and the two Arabic and French versions have been published simultaneously, a necessity in the eyes of Seifeddine Nechi due to a Tunisian market that is too small for comics.

The story revolves around an anonymous character, Chbayah (little ghost), who hacked the radio frequencies of the Tunisian police during the bread riots in 1984. He remained a reference for the two authors who knew how to embroider a historical fiction around this figure. For the translation from literary Arabic to French, they chose not to put onomatopoeia unlike other comics. “It’s very complicated to imagine the sounds and exclamations from one language to another, says Seif Eddine Nechi. There are many cultural specificities. We have therefore decided not to put any at all to allow a real immersion to the reader. »

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The question of the technicality of the translation between Arabic and French also presents a challenge for Walid Soliman who translated A fierce freedom by Annick Cojean. “There are a lot of particular vocabulary and metaphors, he explains. So you really have to draw on ancient Arabic to find the equivalent or even create neologisms. » Mr. Soliman is translating the essay King Kong Theory by Virginie Despentes for a Moroccan publishing house.

The partnership between the two countries in terms of translation, however, seems to have given rise to a new dynamic, underlines the publisher Habib Zoghbi, who now wishes to translate into Arabic The Pillar of Salt (ed. Corrêa 1953, ed. Gallimard 1966), the fictionalized autobiography of the Franco-Tunisian author Albert Memmi whose preface Albert Camus wrote. “We hope to contribute at our level to the training of a young generation of Tunisian translators translating from French into Arabic or from Arabic into French and thus ensure the next generation”, says Sarra Ghorbal.

This article was produced as part of a partnership with Maghreb des livres. Discover the program: